Shakuntala Devi, the subject of director-writer Anu Menon’s upcoming directorial, was popularly referred to as ‘human computer’. She was a great mathematician, an astrologer and a cookbook author. Shakuntala also wrote a book on homosexuality titled The World of Homosexuals.
The world remembers Shakuntala Devi for her Guinness World Record of correctly multiplying two randomly selected 13-digit numbers within 28 seconds. But, it was not only her mathematical wizardry that forced Anu Menon to make a movie on her. She recognised Shakuntala as an “unapologetic, imperfect mother” and a “mother who was so different from the idea of a ‘good mother’.”
“Apart from the fact that she was an amazing genius who lived an extraordinary life, the way she lived her life is a big lesson for us in today’s times. She was a woman who despite achieving so much, embraced the fact that she was not perfect. She lived life to the fullest, unapologetically on her terms, embracing the successes and failures of life,” said Menon while sharing why she felt the need to tell the story of Shakuntala Devi.
To make Shakuntala Devi, which stars Vidya Balan in the lead role, Menon met the mathematician’s daughter Anupama Banerji in London and from her, she got to understand the mathematical wizard beyond her genius. After their meeting, the filmmaker “decided the best perspective to tell Shakuntala’s story is through the eyes of her daughter”.
“As I met Anupama in London, I found this incredibly moving story about a mother and daughter and what does it mean to have a mother who’s larger than life, is a genius, is not afraid to do things her way, who’s not afraid to lose, a mother who’s so different from the idea of what a good mother is. So, we decided the best perspective to tell Shakuntala’s story is through the eyes of her daughter. Shakuntala Devi passed away in 2013 and we met Anupama in 2016. We found a daughter who was still dealing with a big void in her life,” Menon shared.
The trailer of Shakuntala Devi showed a glimpse of her troubled relationship with her daughter Anupama, played by Sanya Malhotra. Anupama allowed Menon to showcase her mother’s story through her flaws, and the filmmaker is grateful to her since she “can’t put a person on a pedestal”.
Often Bollywood biopics are accused of being hagiographies, but Anu Menon feels, “Whitewashing someone’s image is not good cinema. When you watch a film, you watch a person who has good and bad both. That is what makes for a good drama. So, if it is just a puff piece, that doesn’t make for good cinema.”
She added, “One of the things I loved about Shakuntala Devi’s story was, she was not scared to fail. The good and the not so good existed in Shakuntala so intrinsically that you can’t love her by just loving her genius. You have to love Shakuntala for all kinds of things she did, either right or wrong. So, I think that sort of attitude is what we should celebrate. That’s what excites me as a filmmaker and that’s what excited Vidya (Balan). She has said no to many biopics in the past because it just felt not true.”
Vidya Balan, who played a scientist in her last film Mission Mangal, was Menon’s first choice to essay the role of Shakuntala Devi. “I wanted someone who could capture Shakuntala Devi’s essence. To me, that was more important than to look physically identical. What I wanted was someone who can get under her skin and get the nuances of this person. So, Vidya might not look exactly like Shakuntala, but she has that feeling of Shakuntala Devi. She has that South Indianess about her. Her attitude towards life is very similar to Shakuntala Devi. And, that has been our approach to storytelling. It’s more important to capture the attitude and essence,” Menon shared.
Also read | Vidya Balan: Shakuntala Devi is not a puff piece
Anu Menon also has Amazon Prime Video’s Four More Shots Please to her credit. So, we asked the filmmaker if she has some fondness for strong female characters.
“I think so. I feel we need to own it and not be apologetic about anything. When we tell women-centric stories, we often tend to make them underdogs. We show, ‘see a woman is doing all of this’, as if most women can’t do it, but this woman has been able to do it. I think we deserve to be as successful and as flawed as anybody else. It’s not just for women. Even for men. The pressure to be perfect is too much these days. It’s okay to make mistakes and apologise. The story of Shakuntala Devi is not told like a female empowerment film,” Menon concluded.
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